FILM REVIEW: Venus in Fur

Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski, 2013)

Venus in Fur is a film adaptation of a stage adaptation of a novella. Furthermore, the stage adaptation is about a (fictional) stage adaptation of the novella. Yes you read that right: LAYERS. The novella, Venus in Furs was written in 1870 by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who inspired the term ‘masochism’ – a prominent aspect of his work.  This in turn, inspired David Ives’ play Venus in Fur which premiered in the West End in 2010. Rather than a direct adaptation, the play is set in current day New York, and involves a brazen woman, Vanda, who auditions for playwright and director, Thomas Novachek, who has adapted Venus in Furs for the stage. What follows is a rich power play between the actress and the director, which mirrors the relationship between the two written characters, with the two moving in and out of character seamlessly, to the point where lines become inexplicably blurred. I had the pleasure of seeing the Broadway premiere of Venus in Fur in 2011, starring Nina Arianda in a Tony winning performance as Vanda, and Hugh Dancy as Thomas. I was excited to hear that the play was being adapted to film, but somewhat doubtful that it could live up to the incredible performance I witnessed on the Great White Way.

VIF film poster

The film changes the setting of the play to Paris, and is spoken in French. I was apprehensive when first watching the trailer as the actors are noticeably older. Vanda is played by Emmanuelle Seigner (Roman Polanksi’s wife) who is 47 years old in real life – almost double that of Nina Arianda who was 25 when the play premiered on the West End. Thomas Novachek is played by Mathieu Amalric (48), following Wes Bentley (31 in the West End production) and Hugh Dancy (38 on Broadway). Amalric is noticeably less of a hottie than his theatre counterparts, but his performance was incredible. Seigner nails the role of Vanda – her character differs from Arianda’s portrayal, in that she presents as a woman with greater experience both personally and professionally. And she certainly didn’t look 47. If I had to pick a favourite I would choose Arianda because she was simply INSANELY good when I saw her, but Seigner still brings something fresh and worthy of admiration. Despite their ages, the two leads of the film still manage to convey the erotic nature of the script, and not in the “Ew but they’re old” kind of way. Okay, they’re not THAT old. Still, I do prefer the hot young things.

Emmanuelle Seigner & Mathieu Almaric
Emmanuelle Seigner & Mathieu Almaric
Nina Arianda & Hugh Dancy on Broadway
Nina Arianda & Hugh Dancy on Broadway

Seeing a Roman Polanski film does require some moral disengagement. There are those who have vowed to boycott all of his films, as they believe that to view them would be to support a pedophile. Others will claim that Polanski is an incredible director and that we should be able to separate his work from his personal life. More recently this debate has been reignited concerning Woody Allen, another alleged pedophile. It doesn’t sit well with me that whilst people are quick to condemn the unknown alleged pedophile of the week in the news, when it comes to a celebrity the comments turn to “well we can’t really know for sure, he’s innocent until proven guilty”. That very attitude is offensive to the many victims of abuse as it suggests that they should be considered liars until there is definitive proof (which there can rarely be in such cases – research suggests that only 3% of rapists will ever serve time). Polanski is, however, KNOWN to be a rapist, and yet there are still those who will insist that the statutory nature of the crime makes it somehow okay. I feel very divided on the matter of viewing his films. I have vowed to never buy (or listen to if I can help it) Chris Brown’s music following the physical assault of his then girlfriend, Rihanna. But I feel like this is hypocritical when I still see Polanski films and have a song featuring R. Kelly on my iPod. I don’t actually like Chris Brown’s music so that certainly makes it easier where he’s concerned. But as for the others, they produce content that entertains me, and so I consume it. I feel guilty about this, but I still do it anyway. If I am to separate the man from the work, I would note that Polanski has successfully adapted a stage production for the screen twice now, following Carnage (based on Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage) in 2011. With the exception of The Pianist (2002), I have not seen any of Polanski’s other works, but I’m aware that he has many fervent admirers based on his directing ability. I am tempted to seek out Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), but at the same time, I resist that temptation. There’s no easy answers here and it can be debated all day so let’s return to the film…

Nepotism?
Nepotism?

As expected, the film is set almost entirely (with the exception of the first and last minutes) within the confines of the theatre, however they use the stage well, and sometimes even go beyond the stage to the stalls or the wings. Their constant movement around and out of this space prevents the film from feeling claustrophobic and monotonous. Some comparisons can be made with Polanski’s Carnage, which also only includes outside shots in the opening and closing moments, and where the characters try various times to leave the space but are ultimately drawn back to it. Unlike the stage production, the film involves a wonderful score by Alexandre Desplat (also the composer for Carnage) which comes and goes to heighten the tension. The music, along with sound effects for actions that the characters mime (e.g. pouring a cup of tea, signing a document) conveys a sense of magic that was not present in the stage version. This was almost misleading – I knew that no aspect of the story is in any way magical and yet I was still tempted to expect that it might be. The ending was also unusual – from memory this scene was not included in the play.

Hot young things
Hot young things

Being a French film that is currently being screened in Australia, there were English subtitles, naturally. Unfortunately, I felt that the way that these were presented somewhat detracted from the ambiguity that is a big part of the story i.e. what Vanda and Thomas are saying in character (whether from the script or improvised) versus what they are saying as themselves. When they spoke from the script (or improvised lines for the play) the subtitles were italicised; when they spoke as themselves they were not. One of the brilliant things about the play (and indeed for any French viewers of the film) is that in some instances (particularly in the later stages) one can never be too sure which is which. For those of us reading the subtitles, it is handed to us. This makes it easier to follow in one respect, but doesn’t allow for multiple interpretations.

"I'm a... slave! For you!"
“I’m a… slave! For you!”

The big theme in Venus in Fur (and its original source material) is power. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the film, but it is a thrilling theme that will have you engrossed up until the very end. I found the ending a little hard to get my head around but I think it seems more complicated than it really is. Should this play ever be professionally staged in Melbourne I would snap up tickets in a heartbeat – there is more to be gained from repeat exposure to the text and I would delight in being able to see other actors’ takes on the roles. I recommend seeing the film, or waiting for the play to be staged here in Australia (it has thus far only been staged in Brisbane). If you opt for the latter you can be rest assured that it will have nothing to do with Polanski, if that bothers you.

4 stars

Venus in Fur is currently screening as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival at Palace Cinemas. For session times and the full programme, visit www.affrenchfilmfestival.org

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